For a decade the 500-mile race at Indianapolis has been run behind brick walls of orthodoxy. Each year there have been assaults on the fortress, some by single commandos and others by small but brave companies. None has succeeded. But now Grand Prix drivers in rear-engined racers are attacking in force. They have lively expectations of knocking down the bricks from the inside, and with them, everything that has recently been held sacred in the great Hoosier fiesta of speed.
Spearheading the attackers, some of whom are backed by big bankrolls, are a couple of racing cars called Lotus-Fords. They, more than the other exciting intruders, pose a dangerous threat to Indy's recent traditionalists, the Offenhauser roadsters that have reigned without important challenge for the past 10 years.
The Lotus-Fords will be driven by a tall, lean Californian (by way of New York), Dan Gurney, the superb driver who glares so determinedly from this week's cover, and his fellow agitator, Scotland's Jimmy Clark. The two overcame some exasperating moments last weekend and qualified their cars for the Memorial Day race. In doing so, they all but assured a record-breaking attendance. At Indy, "500" crowds are always immense. Estimates have ranged from 225,000 all the way up to 300,000 in recent years. But there is nothing like the scent of insurrection to bring out thousands more. Even last Saturday's first qualifying round drew some 200,000—double the Kentucky Derby attendance—not to witness a race but merely to share the agony of drivers sweating to get their cars into the "500."
The spectators were not disappointed by Gurney. On Saturday morning he smacked into a wall with one car, damaging his machine beyond repair. Saturday afternoon, nerved and eager, he popped up in a spare car. When it looked as if he could not possibly get onto the track before the closing gun, he did. He drove at a speed that would have gotten him up near the front handsomely but then, as has happened so often in his life, he fell victim to a freakish accident and was forced to abort on the fourth and last required lap. He had gotten his foot tangled up in the safety strap attached to the throttle pedal. Not until the next day did he finally stop stretching the nerves of his followers to the last millimeter and join Clark, who qualified nicely among the first five in the field of 33. It was a rousingly memorable weekend for a dedicated iconoclast, and it left prettily unsettled the question of whether the Lotus-Fords were ready to savage Indy's beloved Offies.
May 26, 1963
One thing was clear: they are as different as racing cars can be. The Lotus-Fords are rear-engined, independently sprung, superlight, have carbureted push-rod power units (as do ordinary passenger cars) and burn ordinary pump gasoline. The conventional Indy car is larger, heavier, is fitted with rigid axles and wears its four-cylinder, overhead-camshaft, fuel-injected, alcohol-burning Offenhauser engine in front. Two previous stabs at the "500" by rear-engined cars were somewhat inconclusive. A British Cooper placed ninth in 1961, but it was underpowered. A Buick-engined Mickey Thompson car, driven last year by Gurney, broke down. This year has produced many more of the rear-engined cars. Thompson himself has five, all Chevrolet-powered. There are two more with Buick engines, financed by Chicago Sportsman Jim Kimberly, as well as the returning 1961 Cooper, in which San Francisco Car Importer Kjell Qvale has installed a British Aston-Martin in-line 6. All faced a struggle even to make the starting field, but they clearly reflected the snowballing impetus of the rear-engined car.
The Lotus-Fords are something else. The frameless "monocoque" chassis are from the workshop of Britain's Colin Chapman, the foremost racing-design brain of Europe. To the Offymen, Chapman's European fame implied only a muffled danger. But the Ford aluminum V-8 engine meant big trouble. If Ford entered the "500," they reasoned, Ford intended to win. They were not disabused of their qualms when Benson Ford personally checked in at last week's qualifying trials and Lee Iacocca, Ford Division general manager, told newsmen his company was in racing "for the long haul."
The reaction to Ford was twofold. First the Offy drivers and mechanics became hypersensitive to new, small 15-inch tires produced by Firestone for the Lotus-Fords (and other rear-engined cars). Some of them charged Firestone was favoring Ford, and many demanded that the tires be withdrawn. Firestone declined, pointing out that roadster builders had scorned the tires earlier for possible use on their own cars. A merry row was boiling until a number of Offy drivers tried the tires, liked and adopted them. Next week a majority will use Firestone's 15-inchers.
The second and most electrifying effect was to spur the drivers to furious effort on the track. Awesomely brave, skilled and combative in any year, they became downright ferocious. The marvelously gifted Parnelli Jones, first man to crack the speedway's 150-mph lap barrier, added nearly three mph in practice to his 1962 record, soaring to 153.557 mph. He qualified on the pole at 151.153. A dangerous wind Saturday squelched higher speeds within his reach. Nine other drivers exceeded 150 for the first time, some obviously on sheer will, but so did Gurney and Clark.
The question of whether the Lotus-Fords might actually win this year was debated endlessly. Their obvious advantages are in their lightness, their better aerodynamic shape and the independent springing, which means excellent tire wear. Chapman believes they will have to make only one pit stop—a large plus, since the Offies have always had to make at least three.
On the negative side, the Lotus-Fords are still second to the Offenhauser cars in the crucial matter of accelerating off turns. The roadsters simply can outdrag the Lotus-Fords. What is yet to be determined, according to the intelligent Tulsa car owner, Jack Zink, is whether one pit stop compensates for faster pickups and three pit stops. Zink feels the one stop very well could.
Another man who does is Dan Gurney, who unquestionably is as responsible as the Lotus-Ford for triggering last weekend's fusillade of speed. The public has not caught up with him yet, but Gurney is nevertheless America's best and most influential racing driver. It was Gurney who conceived the idea of the Lotus-Ford, Gurney who believed in it so passionately that he paid Colin Chapman's air fare for an exploratory trip to last year's "500," Gurney who then persuaded Chapman to build the Lotus "500" chassis and Gurney who talked Ford into developing the engine for it. Finally, it was Gurney who cracked the 150-mph barrier with a Lotus-Ford prototype fully a month before the speedway opened for official practice, and thus spurred the Indianapolis drivers to their present remarkable exertions.
Whether he wins or loses on Memorial Day, Dan Gurney has really only begun to operate. The evidence suggests that he is at midpoint in what will be a famous career. Racing has had two superheroes since World War II—Argentina's Juan Fangio, distinguished by his cool, incomparable style and his five world championships, and England's Stirling Moss, notable for his energy, eloquence and the championship he should have won but did not before his recent, lamented retirement. Gurney may well become the third, and if he does he will owe his prominence to his intelligence.
Gurney is the U.S.'s most thoughtful driver. He is always learning something—about racecourses, cars, tires, people and himself. At 32 he has already reached the first rank in Grand Prix racing—the realm of road racing in which world championships are won. Fangio considers him the best. He is our most complete driver; his exploits in stock cars at Daytona Beach and in speedway cars at Indianapolis have made him the most effective bridge between the separate and oftentimes hostile camps of U.S. road racing and track racing.
Until now Gurney has rarely had the power to impose his will upon events. Mostly he has had to scramble for cars to race. But when a man of his gifts can launch machines of such significance as the Lotus-Fords, his prospects for the future must be considered very handsome indeed.
Gurney says all racing drivers tend to be nonconformists—"the kind of people who reach out and touch when they see a wet-paint sign." The impulse to get some paint on his own fingers surfaced when he was a high school kid in Manhasset on Long Island and going to midget auto races. A family less likely to produce a racing driver than Gurney's can scarcely be imagined. His parents were educated at Oberlin and moved in circles attuned to cerebration, not acceleration. Dan's father, John Gurney, studied voice in New York and Paris; for 10 years he sang bass-baritone at the Metropolitan Opera. Watching Dad a time or two amid the Met's gilt and plush seems to have left Dan unmoved.
In 1948 John Gurney retired from the operatic stage to grow oranges in Riverside, Calif. Dan was 17 at the time, a restless and searching youth. He eased through Menlo College with just-passing marks. In 1952 he was burning to be a jet pilot but was dismissed after passing cadets' exams "when the Air Force found out I was married." He is still very much married, to a pretty and efficient Riverside girl named Arleo June, who has borne him three sons and a daughter.
Grounded and still groping, Gurney spent 16 months in Korea as a mechanic in an antiaircraft battery, then "hired out as a beginner, a flunky," with a small Riverside aluminum company.
"What I really wanted to do was to race," Gurney says. "The idea had been simmering in me all along, but it was hard to justify. I was married; I had to have a job." He did manage to buy a Triumph TR-2 and later a Porsche, and he and a friend practiced race-driving on lonely hill roads around Riverside.
At the aluminum works Gurney became foreman of a team experimenting with advanced casting methods and found this "very exciting." Eventually he managed to hustle a few drives from well-heeled car owners and displayed promise and impetuosity in about equal quantities. To his dismay, after one particularly important tryout he was sent packing. But in that seeming disaster was forged the driver who would shine and conquer. Gurney keeps in the study of his home in Costa Mesa, Calif. a souvenir of the day. It is a jagged chunk of stone in which gleam traces of aluminum. Overeager, he had spun a Ferrari off course and punctured its aluminum fuel tank on that cautionary stone.
"It was a ghastly setback," Gurney recalls. "But I realized you had to have more than this thing, this desire, burning like a fire inside. You had to have understanding, too."
Clearheaded now, firmly the master of a somewhat hasty heart, Gurney persevered and won as patron a wealthy cement contractor, Frank Arciero. Late in 1957 he astonished spectators at his home-town Riverside racecourse by feather-footing an unwieldy and outmoded Ferrari of Arciero's to second place in a nationally important sports car race. So extravagant was the praise given him at an awards dinner that Gurney was close to tears.
In 1958, "alone and frightened," he went to Italy to try out for a berth on the Ferrari Grand Prix team. He won it and in 1959 raced with that exalted but ill-paid band. In 1960 he was with Britain's BRM, in 1961 and last year with Germany's Porsche. The cars that fell to Gurney were invariably outclassed; still, he managed to win last year's French Grand Prix and harass the leaders in other world championship events (in this year's Grands Prix he will drive a Brabham). In sports car races Gurney was superb, twice winning the major prize at Nassau, displaying fire and purpose and a master's technical security everywhere.
As he sprinted into 1963—excelling in a rich variety of races—Dan Gurney was planting his fingerprints in the wet paint so ineradicably that the auto-racing world, at last, was taking more than casual notice.